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A Portrait of a Man: Rod Serling

Back on October 10, madwriter (writer Danny Adams) posted The Writing Pits, Starring Rod Serling, in which he discussed the book Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone by Joel Engel. Years ago, I read Engel's biography of Gene Roddenberry and enjoyed it a great deal. Engel's was competing with the "authorized" biography by David Alexander; I read them both, and appreciated the different perspectives the books gave.

But for whatever reasons, I had never gone back to read Engel's biography of Serling. Well, okay, there are a few reasons. Despite Serling's prominence in the world of arts and letters, I was never particularly interested in his work. I'm not into horror, or being frightened, and the Twilight Zone was a frightening program. So although I could appreciate what the anthology series was about, I tended to stay away from it unless I knew it was safe for me to watch.

And yet it would tempt me. I never really got into the original series in syndication, but I did try to watch The New Twilight Zone series that was produced in the 1980s. I vividly recall the premises of a few episodes. One story involved a button that you could press to get a million dollars, but someone you didn't know would die. Another story showed a couple who found themselves thrown an hour into the future, existing in a minute of time that hadn't been "built" yet. They meet the construction crew working rapidly to build the universe for that minute before humanity catches up with them.

A third story that I seem to recall was written by David Gerrold showed a creepy alien invasion. I tried to watch it, but I was so frightened by it that I turned it off at a pivotal point.

The episode I recall the best, though, and the one I liked the most, was "Profile in Silver" written by J. Neil Schulman. The story is about a future historian, played by Lane Smith, who goes back in time to observe the Kennedy assassination. He ends up preventing it instead, because he can't bear to see Kennedy die, and historical repercussions ensue. I know that the Kennedy assassination is one of those cliché moments for time travel stories, but Schulman made it work.

But I digress; I meant to write about Serling, and not about the spinoff show. So as I was saying, after Danny recommended the Engel biography of Serling, I borrowed a copy of the book from the library and finished it last week.

As Danny noted from his reading of the book, Engel presents Serling as a bundle of neuroses. I hope Danny won't mind if I quote from his post here, because he summarizes Engel's point more eloquently than I can:


Engel, who interviewed Serling's widow Carol for dozens of hours along with numerous acquaintances, and who poured through countless letters Serling wrote, portrays a man who always had his own anxieties anyway that were intensified by writing--and not much ameliorated by success. Even at the height of his success with The Twilight Zone, with accolades and awards for both that and his work on Playhouse 90 under his belt, he still desperately believed that his own work was crap--and this often became a vicious cycle. His anxieties were so bad that most of the time he would take on multiple projects simultaneously, trying to please as many people as possible, then undercut his talent by doing a shoddy rush job on each piece from the suffocating pile. And even when something did strike gold...he could have nineteen rave reviews but if the twentieth was bad, he would spiral into a depressed slump.


Danny goes on to note that no matter how successful he becomes, he knows that the anxiety and fear will always be with him. I think all of us who write understand the demons that drove Serling. In one of his books on writing, Lawrence Block notes how a writer can simultaneously believe that whatever project he is working on now is both the greatest thing ever and the worst piece of crap committed to paper. In some ways, we need both of those impulses in order to write. We need to believe that what we're working on is worth it, but we also need to believe that it can be made better, so that we will work to make it better.

What happened to Serling, however, is sad but instructional. Convinced that the well would dry up, Serling took on every assignment he could, rushing through one project in order to get onto the next one. For many of his projects, he simply didn't live up to his own potential or reputation. He probably could have done so more often had he chosen more wisely among the assignments offered to him. But as Danny pointed out, Serling wasn't as careful as he could have been. So the quality of his work would suffer, he would get bad reviews, and the ensuing depression would drive his work down again.

Those of us who write should take a lesson from Serling's life. In fact, we should take a bunch of lessons from Serling's life. The first one Danny has already noted in his post, which is simply to acknowledge that the fear and anxiety might always be with us, but that it is better than the emotions that come from not writing at all. I would go further and echo the advice that others have written of before. Don't worry about the work that's in the past, or the work that might come up in the future. Concentrate always on your current project, whatever it is, and do what you can to make it the best it can be.

madwriter, thanks for the book recommendation. I may try to track down a copy for myself as well.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

You should watch some of those old Twilight Zone episodes. I'm not into horror either, but most of them aren't really horror. Many of them could be classified as suspense, some humor, and most of them involve some kind of bizarre and/or surprising plot twist.
I've actually read through Marc Scott Zicree's guide to the show, so I'm familiar with the plots of most of the episodes. I know which ones I'd be able to enjoy, and which ones would terrify me.

But I was imprinted at a young age when I came across one of the more frightening episodes while flipping channels on the television. It drew me in. So I watched it, not realizing how scary it was going to be. And when it was over, I knew I would never want to watch The Twilight Zone again.
hmm. My mother had a similar experience with, of all things, Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. And alas, I showed my daughter The Princess Bride when she wasn't ready for it, and now she refuses to watch it, even though she's watched much scarier things in recent years.
Try giving her a copy of the Princess Bride book maybe?
You posted this on the day of our first Basement Flood, so I'm only just now seeing it--but I'm glad you liked the book. (At least I assume you did!) And no, I don't mind you quoting me. ;)

BTW, I assume you're not going to be at RavenCon this year, but just in case, I'm planning tentatively to be there again.
We'd love to go to RavenCon, but I doubt it's going to be in the cards.

And yes, I liked the book and very much appreciated the recommendation.
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